Confessions of Faith: I Can’t Breathe

I sit here, a black woman born in America. I made my entrance into this world decades after the Jim Crow era, centuries after the emancipation of my ancestors. I’ve never been enslaved. I’ve never had to sit in the back of a bus. I’ve never been turned away from a hospital because I was the wrong color. I’ve never been spit on simply because I dared to seek an education. I’ve never had my babies sold away from me, while milk still leaked from my breasts. I’ve never had the body of a loved one laid at my feet, the features grossly disfigured, eyes bulging and neck broken, the twine from a rope still lodged in their shredded skin. I’ve never experienced any of that. But those images have haunted my dreams for the last few weeks. I can’t breathe.

The truth of the historical lack of value for black lives sits on the seat of my heart. I log onto social media and I see videos of one man being choked to death. I see the shaky image of another laying face down in the middle of an empty street, blood seeping from his bullet riddled body. I see photos of a boy, not yet a man, killed because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. I see another boy, shot down because he played with a toy gun in a park. I see this images and my heart breaks. I can’t breathe.

Even more disturbing than the images are the comments beneath them. Comments like, “He shouldn’t have been selling cigarettes.” “He’s a criminal, and he got what a criminal deserves.” “If they’re so concerned about black lives, why don’t they work on not killing each other first.” “People always want to play the race card. If he had been white, we wouldn’t even be talking about this now.” “Here we go again with the racism. I’m sick of these people never being satisfied and making a big deal out of nothing.” “If you break the law, you get choked out. Stop breaking the law.” “He was no choir boy, so all of this protesting isn’t necessary.” I read these comments and I can’t breathe.

grand central

Protesters lie down in Grand Central station. Photograph: Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images

I wonder how anyone can have such a disregard for life that they actually attempt to justify the murder of unarmed people. I wonder how they can defend the actions of someone they never met, after having heard only one side of the story. I wonder how it can be okay for one man to act as prosecution, judge and jury, sentencing and execution, all within the span of a few moments. I wonder when selling cigarettes without a permit became a crime punishable by death. I wonder when vandalizing a convenience store became a crime punishable by death. I wonder when walking on private property became a crime punishable by death. I wonder when playing a prank in a park became a crime punishable by death. I wonder these things and I can’t breathe.

I remember being a young girl living in Long Beach, California, a suburb of Los Angeles. I remember watching the news and seeing three white police officers beat a black man almost to death. I remember not being able to go to school because people were setting my neighborhood on fire, breaking windows and stealing merchandise. I remember watching as two black men pulled a white man from a big rig truck and beat him, for no other reason than the color of his skin. I remember thinking how wrong all of these people were. I remember that I watched all of this unfold, and I couldn’t breathe.

Days after the Rodney King riots I walked home from school. I noticed that now there were bars on the store front windows. When I went to the corner store, the clerk told me to take my backpack off and leave it by the door. Suddenly, I was not to be trusted. I felt enraged that in a store I had frequented for years, I was viewed not as a customer, but as a potential criminal. I was a twelve year old girl and I told the store clerk that no, I would not leave my backpack by the front door. I asked him why he wanted me to do so and he said so that I would not steal. I asked him how did I know that he wouldn’t steal from me? Eventually, he waved me off and said fine, keep your backpack.

I used to pick roses from my neighbor’s yard. On my way home from school I would choose the largest blooms with the richest colors and pluck them. I’d walk home, delightfully inhaling their delectable fragrance. One day, the owner of the house rushed into her front yard and angrily demanded to know what I was doing. I happily informed her that I was picking flowers to make a bouquet to put in my room. I offered to make one for her too. She politely declined and told me that the flowers were private property and were not mine for the taking. I apologized and went on my way, only stopping to smell (not pick) the flowers from that day forward.

die in

Protesters staged a “die-in” Wednesday during the San Diego City Council inauguration ceremonies. Photo by Angela Carone

I share those stories because they could have easily ended another way.  What are nothing but minor incidents from my childhood could have meant the end of my life if the situations had escalated. I have to wonder if, had I been a young black boy instead of a young black girl, the stories would have ended differently. I think about the small choices that lead to tragedy. I think about how in the blink of an eye, a routine arrest can become a homicide.

I add my voice to the struggle for human rights, not to add to the dissension, but to help bridge the gap. I hope that what I’ve shared causes someone to pause and evaluate whether or not the tragedies of the last year are truly separate isolated incidences that don’t reflect the current state of American culture. I hope that they will take a few moments and think about whether the outcome of these tragedies truly reflect the value that all lives matter.

As for me, I’m holding my breath for my cousins, uncles, brothers, friends, nephews, father, probable future husband and sons. Because I won’t be able to breathe easy, until they can.

XoXo,

Faith

When life is heavy and hard to take, go off by yourself. Enter the silence. Bow in prayer. Don’t ask questions: Wait for hope to appear. Don’t run from trouble. Take it full-face.  The “worst” is never the worst. (Lamentations 3: 28-30, The Message)

Stomping down hard on luckless prisoners, refusing justice to victims in the court of High God, tampering with evidence—the Master does not approve of such things. (Lamentations 3: 34-36, The Message)

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere~ Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

“Every 28 hours a young black man is killed by police,” one young woman told the Guardian, referring to nationwide statistics. “Only 2% of police are indicted. Those numbers are crazy. It’s telling young black men that their lives don’t matter and their deaths can be passed over.” Source

A new report from ProPublica analyzes data from the FBI’s Supplementary Homicide Report on teenagers shot by police from 2010 to 2012. The report concludes that black teens are 21 times more likely than white teens to be killed by police officers..~ Source

Police officers, security guards, or self-appointed vigilantes extrajudicially killed at least 313 African-Americans in 2012, according to a recent study. This means a black person was killed by a security officer every 28 hours. The report notes that it’s possible that the real number could be much higher. ~Source

In Missouri, for example, African Americans were 66 percent more likely than whites to be stopped by police in 2013, according to the St. Louis Post Dispatch. A similar disparity exists in many other states and cities. ~Source

Author’s note: I respect and appreciate police officers who conduct themselves with honor. I’m an advocate for accountability and legislation that provides justice for senseless killing.

 

 

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21 thoughts on “Confessions of Faith: I Can’t Breathe

  1. Faith, I empathize with you and pray that one day soon everyone will be treated with respect and dignity regardless of race or religion. I pray that violence be replaced by understanding; that fear replaced by compassion and prejudice by acceptance.
    I pray that your post reaches those who need to read it; that their beliefs and attitudes evolve and that they begin to see that they are the real source of injustice and crime.

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  2. So heartfelt, Faith. I long for the day when people can live in harmony without the hatred and prejudice attached to skin colour and religion. If only we could live and let live.

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  3. Thank you for sharing your experience and feelings in this post. It’s a tender subject for me, as well.

    Why can’t “different” be perceived as interesting, instead of a threat? I’ve been studying the First World War for my current novel. The horror is overwhelming. In the cases of these conflicts, the motive was covetousness, and the instigators latched on to any sort of difference, however trivial, between themselves and the people from whom they wanted to justify stealing: “Different” people were thought to be unworthy to keep what they owned.

    For example, Kaiser Wilhelm II envied the French and thought they didn’t deserve what they had. He believed the Belgians didn’t deserve to exist, because their country possessed seaports that he wanted to control. He also thought that because many Britons had Germanic (Saxon) ancestors, and also because he was a grandson of Queen Victoria, that his cousin, King George V, should keep Great Britain out of the war and let Germany do as it pleased on the Continent. And all this despite the fact that if you lined up a Frenchman, a Belgian, a German, and a Briton, wearing nothing but their drawers, you wouldn’t be able to see any difference between them.

    On a more personal level, a history of neighborly culture-swapping, or even shared ethnicity, couldn’t prevent the persistence of prejudice. In the first case, my father’s ancestors came from the part of France that borders Belgium. The people of these countries share languages, foods, and are physically indistinguishable. The French and Belgians fought on the same side during the First World War. My paternal grandmother’s grandfather was born in Belgium. And yet, I heard my grandparents emphatically exclaim, “We’re French! Not Belgians!”

    My mother’s ancestors were Polish. Their country ceased to exist for more than a hundred years, because of the Partition of Poland between Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Russia, each of whose people are almost all physically indistinguishable from Poles. Poles were subjected to discrimination, cultural “re-education” and genocide by their political masters. In the early 20th century, my maternal grandmother’s parents emigrated from “Russian Poland” and my maternal grandfather emigrated from “Austrian Poland.” They all spoke Polish, learned English, and became naturalized US citizens. And yet, my great-grandmother detested her son-in-law, because he came from the “wrong” part of a Poland that had disappeared from the map from the late 1700s until after World War I.

    We continue to witness acts of violence between people living within their own countries’ borders, who share much more than the “differences” that seem to divide them. Because of their skin color, many of these people have rarely escaped affliction due to irrational fear, hatred and war. Persons of Color have become the standard-bearers in the eternal struggle to end stereotyping, prejudice and discrimination. You bear it well for all of us who have looked upon the painful past of our peoples and asked “Why?”

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    • Wow Christine. Your family history is an AWESOME example of just how crazy discrimination and bias is…to think that your grandmother despised her own son-in-law because he was born on the “wrong” side of the country. It blows my mind to think about the prejudice we hold on to, for no logical reason. Thank you so much for sharing this.

      “Persons of Color have become the standard-bearers in the eternal struggle to end stereotyping, prejudice and discrimination.” I love this! I look at how many groups have used the civil rights movement as a guideline for how to protest their own discrimination: gay rights, women’s lib, even Occupy Wall Street. I have a feeling that we’re on the cusp of another radical change, one in which all citizens are given the right to a fair trial. At least I hope so.

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  4. Totally get how you feel. I always worry about my husband when he leaves the house and worry about one day when we have a son. What am I going to tell him? And people who don’t get it are probably looking from a place of privilege and might not ever get it. I’ve actually had to unfollow some people on Facebook because of some of the surprising comments they made about Ferguson and Eric Garner. Like, dude, listen: there is a thing in this country called due process. And last I checked due process didn’t involve getting shot or choked to death.

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    • I think it’s hard for some people to grasp if they’ve never witnessed discrimination first hand. Having grown up around black men, I’ve heard the stories of harassment and witnessed them with my own two eyes. I’ve heard my aunts and uncles, even preachers in the pulpit, warn young black men to conduct themselves with extreme caution whenever they are pulled over or questioned by the police; to not make any sudden movements, keep their hands visible, comply with whatever they are asked to do. In other words, don’t give them a reason. I don’t know that other cultures have to have that conversation with their young people. And like you, I do worry about what to do if I’m blessed with a son. Where do you draw the line from warning with wisdom or just plain scaring them?

      I had to unfollow a Facebook friend for crazy comments too. I’m all for differing opinions, but when you cross the line into blatant disrespect, you gots to go! And to your due process statements, all I can say is, “Right on.”

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  5. Thank you for this powerful post, Faith. For sharing your experiences and heartache. I will never give up hope that we will one day reach a place where race and gender and economic status won’t matter. In the meantime, those of us who care about ALL human lives will have to shout a little louder, stand a little taller with our message for change and hope.

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  6. What a fragile moment — when a person chooses to imagine another outcome than the one they’ve been conditioned by their culture to expect, and chooses faith and empathy (not to mention critical thinking) over fear and aggression. (I loved your 12-year-old reasoning with that supposedly mature store clerk.) People work so hard to isolate themselves from the experiences of others, and they teach and pressure their children to do the same. We have never had more access to information, more opportunities for real dialogue — but how do you reach the people who write those willfully hateful comments, who have absolutely no desire to empathize or understand? The different faces of God divide us right now, but I want to believe that common thread will weave us together before it’s too late. Thank you for writing this, and for the chance you’ve given your readers to leave comments with enough hope to counterbalance the hate we see elsewhere.

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    • “The different faces of God divide us right now, but I want to believe that common thread will weave us together before it’s too late.” This. Is. Beautiful.
      If only more people would remember that we are all created in God’s image…it would drastically change the way we treat each other.
      It’s official: I have the best blog readers in the world!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Well said. It’s become impossible to ignore how alive and well racism still is in America. I pray for change. and I pray for it to come now. Thank you for sharing how you’ve been feeling.

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